paper shredderA Maryland payment processing company agreed to pay a $20,000 fine to the state attorney general's office to settle allegations it did not properly dispose of customer records and instead tossed them in a Dumpster.

The settlement is with Map LLC, which formerly did business as Mid Atlantic Processing, and company officers Martin A. Taylor and Rony Natanzon.

Maryland Attorney General office's consumer protection division says that when the former Mid Atlantic Processing closed its Owings Mills office in May 2009, it allegedly discarded the customer information -- including Social Security numbers and canceled checks -- without protecting it, for instance, by shredding it.

Police picked 77 boxes of business records out of the trash. However, based on the state's investigation, no personal information was taken. The company and its officers deny any liability, the state says.

"Mid Atlantic Processing did not take the required steps to safeguard the privacy of their customers' personal information, making them vulnerable to identity theft," Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler said in a released statement.

Map LLC agreed to properly dispose of the 77 boxes and said it would take steps that could include hiring a shredding company.

Unprotected personal information is a valuable target for thieves, who can use it to create false identities. You can read about the most common identity theft scams here.

To protect yourself, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission suggests finding out what companies do with personal information. Many let you "opt out" of sharing the information with other companies for promotions and marketing.

One of the first clues that your identity has been stolen is a missing bill -- a thief could have changed the address on the account -- or other mail that doesn't arrive on time. The FTC says other warning signs include getting new credit cards you didn't apply for; letters or calls from debt collectors or businesses for purchases you didn't make; and being turned down for credit or suddenly being informed of a high interest rate on a credit account for no apparent reason.

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